SEATTLE — Cristian Roldan had cotton gauze shoved in his nose to stanch the bleeding. He returned not long after receiving treatment only to be tackled from behind by Sebastian Blanco. Roldan shot up and got into Blanco’s face, yelling at him and forcing the Portland Timbers’ Designated Player backward. It was one of myriad times so far this season where the normally humble, quiet and kind Roldan off the pitch has been especially vehement and fervent on it.
“It’s what rivalry games are about,” Roldan said after the Seattle Sounders’ 1-0 win over their Cascadia rivals. “I try to show my emotions and get fans behind the game.”
Roldan scored the game’s lone goal in the fourth minute, redirecting a Chad Marshall header off a Nicolas Lodeiro corner kick. It was Roldan’s fifth career goal and second against the Timbers after heading in the Sounders’ final goal in a 3-1 win over Portland in August of last year. As a pass-before-the-pass player, he isn’t involved in the offense as much as a central midfielder playing in a box-to-box role, but he’s found a home as a defensive midfielder and is learning from one of the best.
The 21-year-old has the luxury of playing alongside captain Osvaldo Alonso, arguably the best and toughest No. 6 Major League Soccer has ever seen.
“I think [Roldan’s fiery side] has been hidden because nobody’s talked about it because I’ve always said he’s a nice kid,” said head coach Brian Schmetzer. “I’m sure he’s taken a few cues from Ozzie over the years, and as Cristian develops, that’s just another part of his learning curve. He’s always searching to find different ways to impact the game.”
Roldan certainly looked like Alonso on Saturday. Roldan completed 64 passes with 89 percent accuracy and had 85 touches. Defensively, he had two clearances, three tackles and four interceptions. He also won eight duels, something in particular of which he takes after Alonso.
Constantly tasked with slowing down the opponent’s most creative player, Alonso has been excelling as a stopgap in front of the back four since he arrived in Seattle in 2009. His effort forces Roldan to match that intensity, and the result is a defensive midfield tandem that is one of the league’s most productive.
“It’s a great opportunity for [Roldan] to learn from one of the greats,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “That grit that Ozzie brings, that he’s famous for, if you have someone who wants to work their butt off like Cristian, at some point it’s going to rub off on you and that’s a really good thing to have.”
Roldan’s work rate is second to none. He entered 2017 as the fittest player on the Sounders’ roster, and he runs as hard in the 80th minute as he does in the eighth.
Late in the game on Saturday, Roldan tracked back defensively after a giveaway to disrupt the play of Dairon Asprilla on the right side of the 18-yard-box. Roldan dispossessed Asprilla nicely before taking a cleat to his face after he headed the ball away. He sacrifices his body and throws himself around with reckless abandon, and that extra effort has been vital to Seattle’s recent success.
“His confidence is growing and he has every right to have his confidence be high,” said Frei. “It’s no coincidence that he and Jordan Morris are good friends. They are very similar in how they try and get better every day, be humble, work their butts off. They make for really good teammates.”